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Andrew Marr: British politics is broken – the centre cannot hold

“None of the above” is a great war cry – but our apathy and rejection of the mainstream parties are likely to lead to chaos and instability.

A change is coming. The leading politicians I’ve been talking to recently, while breaking Sunday-breakfast bread, keep saying the same thing: the polling doldrums are temporary. Soon, somebody will forge ahead. The wind is about to freshen. They all think it. The Tories are convinced that another few weeks of good economic news and playing up the Ukip threat a bit more will allow them to cut clear at last. Three points, then five, then six.

On the Labour side, they’re more nervous but they think that the vast public-sector cuts announced in the Autumn Statement and George Osborne’s promise of tax cuts for the better off are slowly being digested by millions of voters, who are concluding that they don’t like the sound of that very much. A great tactical mistake: surely the reward must be on its way.

All of this assumes that the country will “make up its mind”, which, in turn, assumes that there is a single country and that it has a mind and that, if there is and it does, Britain hasn’t, this year, made up its mind not to make up its mind. There are seven leaders pencilled in for the television debate that may or may not happen. It’s perfectly likely that neither of the big parties will break free and that the election will result in the collapse of the centre. Why is this?

The broad background can be briefly explained and is well understood. We have to start in the period between 1983 and 1989, during the chancellorship of Nigel Lawson, when the power of the City was vastly expanded, as a new financial global system, replacing that of Bretton Woods, took hold. Privatisation swept the world. Deregulated banks reshaped themselves with protean slickness. The power of national politics receded, nowhere more so than in Britain. After the fall of the Conservatives, New Labour, far from searching for a reverse gear, bolstered the power of financial markets. That government deployed (and boasted of) light-touch regulation, gave new powers to the Bank of England, brought in private consultancies to Whitehall (and watched benignly as former civil servants went to work for the big banks and private corporations) and used PFIs to raise capital for its favoured projects. This allowed an avowedly left-of-centre government to keep the money flowing and the financial markets happy, while rebuilding tattered schools and opening new hospitals.

During this period, the old City of London underwent a large-scale change of culture, becoming increasingly Americanised as the big Wall Street institutions moved in, bought in, broke up and swallowed. Thus the US sub-prime housing market crisis, which would always have contaminated British banks, felt like a domestic disaster when the crash came in 2007-2008.

International capitalism was rescued by huge government bailouts, with the now much-maligned Gordon Brown, alongside his chancellor, Alistair Darling, playing an important role. With millions of US homeowners facing foreclosure, stock markets plummeting and major British institutions such as Northern Rock and RBS teetering on the edge, many felt that a total collapse of our economic system was coming. It didn’t but the hangover, which has been with us now for seven or eight years, has completely dominated politics, both here and around the western world.

In an unsustainable spending splurge, who is more to blame: the borrower or the lender? That has really been the political argument, with the left blaming the short-term and greedy banking culture unleashed by deregulation, a capitalist orgy, while the right blames the high spending by governments that had been, in effect, bribing their electorates with a short-term prosperity unearned by higher productivity. (Nobody, of course, blamed the public for a massive increase in personal indebtedness during this period. Going shopping – and staying shopping – had become a fundamental western human right. Democratic
politicians tamper with it, or criticise it, at their peril.)

In Britain, at least, the right won the argument. Initially, much of the public blamed the banks; some bankers, such as RBS’s Fred Goodwin, became hate figures in the media across the spectrum. Popular culture largely agreed. From Up in the Air (2009) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), there was a spate of movies portraying the greed, hollowness and madness of the pre-crash financial system – remember Inside Job (2010) and Too Big to Fail and Margin Call, from the following year? Non-fiction books such as Tetsuya Ishikawa’s How I Caused the Credit Crunch and novels such as Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December and John Lanchester’s Capital took a similar stance. On the stage, we had many satirical assaults on the financial system, of which Lucy Prebble’s all-singing, all-dancing Enron was perhaps the most energetic and popular.

Some day, there will surely be a thesis about why this avalanche of cultural analysis apparently had so little effect on domestic politics. For, when it came to the fight between the defeated Labour politicians and the newly elected coalition ones, the repeated assertion that the real problem had been profligate overspending under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair seemed to win. As a result of the vast sums required from the public purse to save the banking system and the shrivelling of tax receipts as the recession continued, all governments had to rethink their public spending trajectories. The good times, fuelled by a cosy relationship between politicians and international capital, were over.

Perhaps Brown, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were so exhausted and demoralised by their experiences between 2007 and 2010 that they simply didn’t have the rhetorical energy to defend themselves effectively against George Osborne and David Cameron in the blame game. Perhaps it was inevitable that politicians would be blamed more: banks, by and large, don’t stand for re-election. And perhaps the public, contemplating its maxed-out credit cards and remembering the good times, had an instinctive sympathy for the masochistic message of austerity.

Margaret Thatcher applauds Nigel Lawson in Brighton on October 1988. Photo: Clive Limpkin/Associated Newspapers/Rex

Whatever the reason, the initial view of a social crisis caused by out-of-control capitalism was replaced by the belief that it was a bloated, out-of-control state that was largely to blame. That has probably been the single most important political fact of the past five years. We know that austerity has caused much suffering, for most people on welfare and for very large numbers of middle-income voters. Yet the bringers of austerity remain relatively popular, with the Tories at around 33 per cent, while the Labour critics of austerity are at roughly the same poll rating: just as popular, no more unpopular. However, words such as “popular” and “unpopular” seem inappropriate. The electorate appears to treat the two big, old parties with some indifference, as if they were exhausted boxers clinging on to one another, not quite ready to fall unconscious but entirely unable to deliver a vigorous final punch. That’s not much of a spectator sport.

Therefore, does the big story ahead of the 2015 general election not go like this? We had two grand political narratives offered to us in postwar Britain and they have both gone pop. The socialist story, which was that the public sector and public servants could be trusted to deliver a fairer and more decent society, could not survive the left’s brief alliance with turbocharged capitalism. Socialist critics of Tony Blair personalise this too much. It was a huge political defeat for social democracy, which began in the Thatcher period and continues today. Meanwhile, the free-market story, which promised a “virtuous cycle” of ever-greater prosperity, shared in by almost all, was also smashed by the events of 2008. The proposition that if you simply taxed people less and regulated business more lightly, you would find a stable, relatively fair and prosperous society growing automatically is one that even leading pro-market thinkers find hard to expound with a straight face.

Thus, the centre is gently collapsing – not simply mealy-mouthed, easy-osy, compromising, milk-and-water centrism or one-nation compassionism but the notion of there being a centre at all, a relatively stable central party system that is able to deliver coherent parliamentary majorities. All around the hollowing centre are multiple populisms, rubbing their hands – a populism that blames foreigners and Europe, a populism that blames the English-dominated state, the populist politics of Protestant Ulster, the left-wing populism of the Greens. These populisms are not the same. Of course not. They are often mutually antagonistic. Yet they each offer a single culprit for all social ills and they seem to be in a position of influence that we haven’t seen before – and that is, to recap, because of the collapse of the two old stories that once dominated Britain’s political imagination.

I have been simplifying. There are many other aspects to the collapse of the centre worth reminding ourselves of, as we head towards polling day. All of those stories about the failure of public bodies to behave properly or to protect the public – the terrible sex scandal stories, from Oxfordshire and Rotherham; the historic failures inside the BBC; the failures inside the NHS, leaving people to die in corridors – undermine the entire social-democratic narrative. If public servants can’t be trusted to look after sexually vulnerable teenage girls, why should we trust them to do anything else?

On the other side of the spectrum, the stories about tax evasion rip into the Panglossian suggestion that the attitudes that led to the crash have vanished, or even that the financial system possesses an uneasy conscience. Day after day, stories that are,
in essence, about the failure of authority, public and private, and the necessity of general mistrust are fed to us. We are left to join up the dots. We do so.

It’s possible to imagine ways in which the two big parties could recover some of their authority and attraction. Our biggest economic problem isn’t actually the deficit, serious though that is. It’s our lack of inventiveness and productivity. Unless we can find the ideas and the things to sell around the rest of the world, we are sunk. So one can imagine a pro-business social democracy that throws its energies into science, engineering and higher education.

Labour now lives in a world dominated by big business: to achieve greater fairness, it could simply use its power as a government purchaser to make private companies pay the living wage and their taxes and offer more apprenticeships. It could slaughter the vast number of tax loopholes accumulated under different governments. There are the glimmerings of such new thinking visible behind tax-and-spend but they are not nearly clear enough and confident enough yet to show through.

The Tories, meanwhile, could have taken their compassionate conservatism seriously and done more to spread the pain. Those black-and-white balls and friendly hedge fund managers almost seem like a series of acts of wanton self-harm. Tim Montgomerie’s “Good Right” project is the most interesting response and Michael Gove’s call for the Tories to be crusaders for the powerless shows that some Conservatives understand their plight. Perhaps if Cameron took all this more seriously, he might begin to make more ground.

Overall, however, we are now so close to the election that any big change of message from either Labour or the Tories seems unlikely. Neither party, certainly, can try to distract the voters with global stories to help itself out. Today, the British look abroad and see, mostly, the results of our own past failures (Iraqi, Syria, Libya) and our own current weakness (Ukraine, Isis). If there were one part of the state – the watchman state, for instance – that was operating conspicuously more effectively than the rest, then there might have been a left or right gain. But there isn’t. So those two old boxers resort to the politics of fear: Ed Miliband is in Alex Salmond’s pocket, one side says; David Cameron plans to abolish care for the elderly, says the other.

The collapse of authority and self-confidence at the centre of politics has consequences across society. One early example is the lashing anger and lack of civility in public discourse. Most Britons are in employment and average earnings are slowly creeping upwards again; few of us are immediately threatened by violence or disorder. It’s not 1929 and it’s not 1939 but there’s a remarkable amount of fear and fury swilling about.

Moderate, moderately spoken feminists are warned that they will be raped if they don’t shut up. Hard-working public servants are trolled. Some Scottish nationalists take a little time off the moral high ground to taunt my BBC colleague Nick Robinson about his cancer. It’s not just them; the poison is everywhere. People say that it’s always been there – it’s just that Twitter gave it wings. But I wonder to what extent the increase in anger can be explained by the falling away of the traditional left-right ideological argument, by the collapse of the centre? If we don’t have the old grammar for arguing about our future, we are more likely to turn personal and self-righteous.

A second, more important consequence is that we are quite close to losing the state in which most of us grew up. I think it’s highly likely that we will see enough Conservative and Ukip members elected to deliver an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU within two years. The way things are, it’s quite likely that we will vote to leave. If Scotland wanted to stay and England wanted to go, what would that do to the already shaky Union?

It may, anyway, be close to over. I hold my hand up and admit that I was one of those who thought, last summer, that the “Yes” campaign was on course to win. Since then, the surge in SNP membership and support has been remarkable. Labour’s Jim Murphy has the hardest job in politics.

But it could well be too late. There comes a time when the decay of political parties is inevitably followed by the decay of the power structures they inhabit and give life to. Scotland now appears to be so far to the left of England, or rather the English south, that the separate parts of the UK cannot continue together. Yet if the Union is over, the political shape of England will change, too – you can’t stop a landslide at one arbitrary point. Manchester and the north will demand many more powers from a Westminster government, which may, for other reasons, have had to desert the Palace. In England, the party system will rearrange itself. Everything will look and feel very, very different.

It would be wrong to regard such potential changes in a maudlin, pessimistic way. Change can revive as well as undermine. Perhaps we haven’t had enough of it in our political system over the past two centuries. However, the world is a dangerous place just now and this doesn’t seem the best time to replace a relatively unpopular coalition with a weaker government, whether led by the right or the left.

No voter is going to go into the booth and vote for instability. But if we are collectively saying, “None of you is worth supporting,” then “none of you” – radical instability, an unpredictable clatter of change, a weak centre – is what we are voting to get. “None of the above” sounds like a fine, high-minded slogan. It wouldn’t make much of a government.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is the novel “Head of State” (Fourth Estate)

He appears at the Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on Thursday 26 March, in conversation with Erica Wagner, in association with the New Statesman: book tickets here.

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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